The Ginsberg Experience
Tales from the
Shadow And the marriage of poetry and music
Chronicles By Allen Shadow
I had seen Allen Ginsberg read a number of times — in New York City and at the Naropa Institute in Boulder — but it was his visit to a small college in upstate New York in 1996 that turned out to be the "aha" moment in my writing life.

 During a pre-reading discussion with students, Ginsberg began talking about exactly the subject I was about to query him about — the challenges of working with poetry and music.

 First, a primer. When many people hear the word "poetry" associated with music, they assume that means lyrics that are poetic in nature. In other words, doesn’t poetry per se already exist in music? Isn’t it really kind of everywhere? Isn’t it in Gershwin and Stoller and James Taylor and certainly in Dylan and Lennon? Well, yes and no. It’s a little hard to tease apart, but for writers, who have worked in both fields, the difference begins to become more apparent.

 Here are some of the differences. Poetry is generally written for the page as well as the voice. The writer is free, especially in free-verse form, to explore ideas without the requirement of conforming to a set melody. He can let the muse take him to surprising places, even, at times, the profound poetic leap. All of this, mind you, is accomplished within the territory of the writer’s voice. Yes, the voice to a poet is not only vital — it is paramount, which brings us to the next, and, perhaps, most pivotal point in the challenge of marrying poetry with music.

The voice, or let’s say the language itself, has a music all its own. When you listen to a poet reading his work, you get a sense of "a music" in his voice, in the language itself. The music inherent in the writer’s voice is essential to its overall power, as important as the skeleton is to the body. Now, imagine the poet trying to take that voice, complete with its own music, and somehow link it with some form of popular music. Popular forms of music have a kind of singsong structure that is actually fairly ornate, besides being restrictive in meter. An analogy might help here. Try to imagine a fairly busy painting placed in a very ornate frame. The two would probably clash, the prominence of the frame actually distracting from the presence of the painting. That’s kind of what happens when you try to put, let’s call it, literate poetry, into the melodic framework of a popular song. Simply put, there are two musics competing. The song music easily becomes a distraction from the voice music of the literary poetry.

 This probably sounds like a bunch of horseshit, but it’s true. I hadn’t ever read or heard anything about all this. It was only through my experience — a poet and songwriter trying to make my "poetry voice" work within the framework of popular song — that I discovered and, ultimately, wrestled with this phenomenon. I documented a number of the specific challenges and thought that I might be a little nuts in this endeavor until the day I heard Ginsberg start to talk about it at that college in upstate New York. Later in the afternoon, I had the opportunity to talk privately with him about it. I was aware of his work with blues poetry and, in recent times, with many alternative rock bands. But to hear him talk about the challenges of really marrying poetry with music, was both enlightening and affirming. He outlined all of the challenges I had encountered, from the distraction of the melody to the limitations of the meter.

 "Free verse lines want to be longer than what you find with pop music," he said. I was excited to hear all this — that Ginsberg, the guru, was not only aware of all these special challenges but was equally frustrated in his quest to overcome them. That experience helped solidify my ambition in service to this quest. If it’s good enough for Ginsberg, I figured, it’s good enough for me.


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